When the original Lego Movie hit theatres in 2014, it surprised everyone with its wacky, consistently funny and manic style of story-telling. There had never been another animated film quite like it, as it quickly won over critics and audiences alike. Three years later, its inevitable spin-off successor The Lego Batman Movie has arrived – and whilst not quite as universally appealing or consistent as its predecessor, it keeps the same wit, heart and absurdist humour that worked so well the first time.
The protagonist on this occasion is the titular Lego Batman, gruffly voiced by Will Arnett. Batman’s ability as a crime-busting vigilante is without question (especially by himself), but his heroic crime-fighting is hilariously juxtaposed here with his chronic loneliness, as the Dark Knight heads home after work for a cold meal of lobster thermidor and a lonesome viewing of Jerry Maguire. When all of his most-vaunted enemies simultaneously turn themselves in to the authorities, however, Batman is faced with his worst nightmare – absolutely no crime at all. What follows is a surprisingly heartfelt take on the comic book hero, as he is forced to act as guardian to a small orphan he accidentally adopted at a gala (‘I thought I was being sarcastic?’) and work alongside the new chief of police, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara, a woman he despises for using ‘ethics’ and ‘accountability’ when handling crime.
Batman was a side character in the original film, but he stole the show so effectively that it seemed only logical, in today’s era of spin-offs and franchises, to give him his own movie. And whilst Arnett’s take on the character is initially as entertaining as before (turning him into a gung-ho man-child with deep, glaringly-obvious insecurities) it gets more than a little wearing when you have to spend over 100 minutes with him as the focus. What works in small doses becomes irritating in larger quantities, as is often the case with somewhat one-note characters. It’s the other personnel, from Michael Cera’s adorably naïve Robin to Ralph Fiennes’ put-upon Alfred (caught here reading ‘How To Raise Your Problem Child’) that really make the film tick.
The Lego Batman Movie is a daft film, sometimes obscenely so. When Batman’s not being attacked by hordes of missile-operating penguins, he’s piloting a Batwing into the Eye of Sauron (yes, really). This is a film absolutely stuffed with sight gags, self-aware references, and throwaway one-liners. There are so many knowing winks, for instance, that you could be forgiven for assuming Chris McKay and his writing team have an eyelash stuck in there. Some jokes work, others don’t, and a few get beaten into the dirt, but there’s so many that you’ll consistently find yourself laughing. The first twenty minutes are worth the entrance fee alone, as the opening scenes near-perfectly skewer the entire franchise (“Who’s the manliest man? BAT-MAN! Who can choke-hold a bear? BAT-MAN! Who always pays their taxes? Not BAT-MAN!”). After the frenetic opening, the rate of jokes notably slows down for the rest of the picture, though the pacing remains no less hypersonic.
That is perhaps the film’s largest issue. It’s exhausting. After just half an hour, I felt in need of a mental break in a small room somewhere with a glass of water and a fan. Events, jokes, fight scenes, all are thrown in at breakneck speed; and whilst this makes the first act a sure-fire classic, by act two the gags are starting to pass you by and you almost wish the film would slow itself down, if only for a moment. Similarly, if you have never seen a Batman movie, or avoid comic book franchises like the plague, many references will fly over your head. While there is still plenty here for the casual viewer to laugh at, it’s the self-appointed fanboys who will appreciate it the most. The plot is also sadly generic – in short, Batman comes to appreciate that he can’t solve all the city’s problems by himself and ends up forging a new family with friends that he can rely on. And yes, there’s a big, saccharine message about how we should all ‘come together,’ complete with token ending dance. For a film so knowingly self-aware, it’s a disappointingly formulaic ending.
In summary, while lacking the universal appeal and genuine poignancy of the original Lego Movie, this is a sequel that is undeniably cut from the same manic cloth. It’s a riot of colour, absurdity and animated plastic that takes itself with the very smallest pinch of salt imaginable – and just about manages to mask its own adherence to the vapid ‘friends and family’ formula through relentless good humour and tongue in cheek self-mockery.
Photograph: Wee Sen Goh